Monday, February 7, 2011

20th Century 20 - 14

Most of the stuff we consume, from soda to plastic bags, has some corn in it. Corn makes up a vast, vast array of supermarket stuffs. So where does all this corn come from?

A field, of course. A monotonous, green and yellow field. What this field doesn't have is earworms. Not the slang term for a catchy tune, but a pest that eats corn. These pests, like many, have been eradicated with pesticides.

Chemical fertilizers and pesticides make agribusiness possible. The Monsanto Corporation is the largest in the U.S., and not surprisingly it makes two things: genetically modified organisms, and pesticide.

When the issues of agribusiness were just beginning it took a naturalist to alert the world of the dangers of unchecked profit-seeking mixing with human wellness. 'The bottom line' often leads to horrible consequences for consumers: from the need for the FDA to regulate meatpacking to the yearly recalls of lead-infused goods or eggs, or anything else.

DDT was a pesticide used to kill mosquitoes. No one likes mosquitoes, but DDT had a severe flaw: it didn't kill the pests instantly, and so sometimes a sprayed mosquito would be consumed by something, usually birds.

Rachel Carson tracked down cases of DDT problems with the tenacity of an undercover journalist, writing up her findings in the landmark Silent Spring. Birds effected by DDT were dying, and their eggshells were thinning. Humans were getting sick. Pigs. All manner of life was being effected by what had been hailed as a great improvement.

Carson, perhaps for the first time, showed that what had been universally hailed as a boon could harm as well. Because of her work consumers think twice about consumption (hopefully) and the world's agribusiness has had some accountability. Still, though, no earworms to be found in those cornfields. And fertilizers haven't been watched nearly as carefully. There is a lot of work to be done, yet. Carson just took the first step.

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